This is a blog which primarily gives some attention to movies that I find were overlooked (for whatever reason) or are simply underrated. I also comment on other, mainly movie-related issues as well. I welcome any suggestions for films to be added to this distinguished list.

One word of warning: The films listed below contain spoilers, so caution during reading is required.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967)

"Shouldn't we build a barricade?"

"No, that would be bad tactics."

-Alfred and his teacher, Prof. Abronsius.

Just before he scored big time with Rosemary's Baby (1968), Roman Polanski made this horror-comedy which rounds out this month's vampire theme.

The title characters are Prof. Abronsius (Jack MacGowran) and his assistant Alfred (Polanski). They arrive in a village in Transylvania one snowy evening to investigate reports of vampires. Right from the start, we know these two aren't exactly like Van Helsing because, for one thing, Abronsius is so frozen by the trip to the village inn, Alfred needs to carry him off their carriage and thaw him out inside. Later in the film, they pretend to stake a vampire by having Alfred drive a stake into a pillow, only to have the hammer hit Abronsius's hand.

At the inn, Alfred becomes smitten with the tavern keeper's daughter, Sarah (Sharon Tate). She is promptly kidnapped by Count von Krolock (Ferdy Mayne), which sends our heroes into action.

They promptly infiltrate von Krolock's castle and pass themselves off as vampires before all the guests see that they and Sarah are the only ones who have reflections in the gigantic mirror in the ballroom.

Our heroes escape, only for Sarah to bite Alfred, while Abronsius continues driving the carriage, unaware that he is now bringing vampires into the world.

Polanski made this film because he realized that people (even then) were laughing at parts of scary movies. So, he decided to make a film in which the laughs are intentional(the film even has the amusing subtitle Pardon Me, But Your Teeth are in My Neck). Although the laughs aren't as prominent as, say, Young Frankenstein (1974), which will test the patience of some viewers, there are some good ones. For instance, Sarah has a need to bathe almost constantly and von Krolock's son Herbert (Iain Quarrier) proves that he desires Alfred by chasing him obsessively around the castle. There's also the vampire who isn't affected by crucifixes because he's Jewish.

The art direction is also first-rate and understandably reminiscent of the set design for the Hammer Dracula films, which were in theaters at virtually the same time.

However, my favorite part of the film is the animated title sequence which rivals the ones in the James Bond and the Pink Panther series as a (short) show in itself.

Sadly, MGM's edits of the movie (originally titled Dance of the Vampires) kept it from making much of an impression in 1967, although it has faired better in recent years in the aftermath of much of Polanski's subsequent work.

This film is also a wonderful and heartbreaking look at the talent and beauty of Tate. Although Valley of the Dolls (1967)-the textbook definition of a campy film- became her most famous movie, this one allows her to be sensitive, beautiful, charming, and even scary.

Hence, this movie reminds us of how far Tate's star may have risen had she been allowed to continue with her career.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Vampyr (1932)

"Come with me. We will be one body...death is waiting."
-Marguerite Chopin

Just one year after the release of Dracula(1931), Danish director Carl Dryer made this vampire flick. Like Bram Stoker, Dryer was a fan of the Joseph Le Fanu novel Carmilla. That story, about a female vampire's obsesssion with a woman, became the basis for Dryer's film.

A traveler named Allan Gray(Nicolas de Gunzburg) arrives at an inn for the evening. He is awakened that night when a man enters his room and leaves a packet with instructions for it not to be opened until his death. Gray takes the packet and journeys to a castle, where he encounters the village doctor (Jan Hieronimko). He is startled by what appears to be shadows dancing. Eventually, Gray sees the man again at a manor before he is killed by gunfire. Grey agrees to stay the night and is startled to find Leone (Sybille Schmitz), a daughter of the Lord of the Manor(Maurice Schutz), wandering outside, despite being gravely ill. After she collapses, she is brought back inside by Gray and her sister Gisele(Rena Mandel). They then find bite marks on Leone. Gray then remembers the packet the old man gave him and opens it to find it is a book on demons (known in the region as Vampyrs).

A doctor visits the manor, whom Gray recognizes from his journey to the castle. The doctor says that Leone needs a blood transfusion to survive and Gray volunteers. However, Gray is left exhausted by the procedure. He senses danger and finds that the doctor has taken Gisele and left. Tracking him to the castle, Gray discovers that a woman named Marguerite Chopin(Henriette GĂ©rard) is a vampyr. With the help of a servant(Albert Bras), they open her grave and drive a metal bar through her heart, killing her. The doctor makes his way to an old mill. The servant then activates the mill, burying the doctor in huge amounts of flour.

Dryer was known for bringing excellent work from actors who did not have much experience, and this film is no exception. For example, Gunzburg was a magazine editor who agreed to help Dryer with financing if he could have a part in the film(he was credited in the film as Julian West).

Vampyr was, however, his first sound film. Technical difficulties with recordings in different languages led to minimal use of dialogue in this film. Much like Nosferatu (1922), this film's greatness lies in its visual moments, such as Gray dreaming that he'll be buried alive.

Sadly, this film was initially a failure. As a result, Dryer wouldn't make another film until 1943 with Day of Wrath, a film about witchcraft. Chillingly, by that time, Dryer's native Denmark had been annexed by Nazi Germany, which could be seen as life imitating art.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Dracula (Spanish-1931)

"Soy Dracula!"

-Conde Dracula

I'm not exactly what you would call a fan of Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series, but I enjoyed both Twilight (2008) and New Moon (2009) and will no doubt see Eclipse (2010) if and when the urge to do so arises.

With the pending release of the first half of the saga's final chapter Breaking Dawn, I thought it would be appropriate to look at a trilogy of little-known gems from the vampire genre.

The first of these is one that has a direct link to the most famous vampire film of all-Dracula (1931). As I'm sure everyone knows, this film made Bela Lugosi a star with his take on the Count. It also became famous as the first Dracula film with sound. Lugosi, despite the typecasting that would later all but kill his career, was one actor who was able to make the transition from silent to sound pictures due to his distinguished voice.

Since sound movies were in their infancy in 1931, though, many films were filmed more than once in other languages (at least until dubbing became more practical). Laurel and Hardy made several of their films in Spanish and German, as did Buster Keaton. These name stars would usually be surrounded by newer casts who spoke the appropriate language in the non-English versions of their films. The stars would read their lines off blackboards.

Dracula, likewise, would have a version in Spanish to tap into the lucrative foreign market(although Universal executive Paul Kohner used this film as an excuse to keep Mexican actress Lupita Tovar in Hollywood; the two later married). This film used the same sets and script as the English version. The crew, directed by non-Spanish speaking George Melford, would work at night when the crew of the Lugosi film left.

This tactic gave them an advantage because they were able to look at footage from that film and determine how they could improve on certain shots. As a result, much of the camera work in this film is better than in the Lugosi film.

One of this film's greatest moments is when Renfield(played by Pablo Alvarez Rubio) first encounters Dracula (Carlos Villarias) in the Count's castle. In the Lugosi film, we clearly see the Count approaching before Dwight Frye's Renfield does (which, I suppose, is meant to be the classic "Behind You!" motif). In this film, though, we don't see Dracula until Renfield does; hence, we are as startled by the Count's appearance as he is.

There is, however, one moment which is superior in the Lugosi picture-when Van Helsing (Eduardo Arozamena) reveals that he knows Dracula's secret by having him look into a mirror. In this film, Dracula slowly turns his head at the mirror Van Helsing is holding and then stares at it for at least three seconds before finally taking his cane to it. In the Lugosi film, though, Edward Van Sloan's Van Helsing shows him the mirror and Dracula instantly smacks it to the ground with a murderous look on his face. That look still gives me the chills and is appropriate for someone who dislikes mirrors.

Another plus to this film is that the ladies are more appealing than those in the Lugosi film. Tovar's Eva is a more sensual female lead than Helen Chandler's Mina.

This version is also, shall we say, more explicit. For instance, we actually see the vampire marks on the ladies' necks here (that must have been tough getting past the censors at that time).

I do agree with the consensus, though, that the only thing keeping this film from becoming as embraced as its English-language counterpart is the lack of Lugosi as the Count. Villarias just doesn't hold a candle to Lugosi and, at times, is more laughable than scary; particularly when he's gritting his teeth.

This film is one of the few alternate language versions of a Hollywood film from the 1930s that is available today. It resurfaced on home video in 1992, which was, coincidentally, the same year that the great-looking but dramatically lacking Bram Stoker's Dracula was released.

Both the 1930s Draculas are now together on DVD. I'd say film historian (and Universal Horror expert) David J. Skal said it best(in the DVD's documentary The Road to Dracula) when he compared the Lugosi film to a familar house and the Spanish film to new rooms that were suddenly discovered in it.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Halloween That Almost Wasn't (1979)

"It's one of those days I wish I was dead-and stayed dead!"
-Count Dracula

Like Witch's Night Out, this TV-Halloween special actually made a memorable impression when it was first broadcast (it even won the Emmy for "Outstanding Individual Achievement-Children's Program"), but then, unbelievably, faded from the public mind by the time DVDs and the Internet became commonplace. Equally bizarre is the fact that, as you can see from the picture, it changed its name for its VHS release.
This is like an episode of The Munsters in that it presents everyone's favorite monster characters in a humorous light and in live action (we basically expect Dracula and his monstrous ilk to make us chuckle if they are animated).
Count Dracula (Judd Hirsch) is shocked by rumors that Halloween may come to an end, so he and his servant Igor (Henry Gibson) call the other monsters-the Witch (Mariette Hartley), the Frankenstein Monster (John Schuck), the Mummy (Robert Fitch), the Zombie (Josip Elic), and the Wolf Man (Jack Riley)-to Dracula's castle to discuss the matter.
After the count chastises them for becoming less and less scary over the decades (the Monster has taken up tap dancing, and the Wolf Man shaved to make a razor blade commercial), the Witch reveals that she's the one who started the rumors that Halloween will no longer be celebrated. She states that she hates being a witch because no one views her with anything but revulsion. The witch then gives Dracula the ultimatum of meeting her demands (which include having a line of t-shirts to replace his own) or she won't signal the arrival of the holiday by flying over the moon at midnight on her broom. When the count refuses, she sets off back to her castle and, since the sun is about to come out, Dracula must wait until the next evening (Oct. 30) to act.
The following night, he and the others arrive at the Witch's castle, where their attempts to capture her so Dracula can hypnotize her into doing his bidding meet with hilarious failure. When all seems lost, two young trick-or-treaters arrive, having heard of the holiday's plight by watching the news (hey, this was before the Internet, so they had to get that info somehow), convince the witch that children the world over love her and what she brings to the holiday. Those sweet words, along with Dracula's forced promise to take her dancing, convince her to fly over the moon just as midnight strikes.
The cast is great, especially Hirsch, who was already doing great work on Taxi, giving us, naturally, a game Bela Lugosi impression (I don't want to get too into this just yet, but the reason Lugosi's Dracula became enshrined into the pantheon of great screen villains is that he was a charming, charismatic figure who could destroy you in the blink of an eye).
Interestingly, this show was broadcast the same year that the equally charming vampire comedy Love at First Bite was in theaters.
Hartley's sarcastic witch makes a great foil for Hirsch's egotistical count. She, likewise, was already doing those Poloroid commercials with James Garner, although I'll always remember her as being the only woman who was able to romance both Spock and the Incredible Hulk (on their respective TV shows, that is).

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Witch's Night Out (1978)

"So, okay, I ain't the Avon lady."

-The Witch

To mark the start of October, or Halloween month as I'd like to view it, this entry(& the one upcoming) is a change of pace in that it isn't a movie, but rather a TV special.

Although Disney has a nice number of Halloween specials under its belt (my favorite being 1952's Trick or Treat, in which the mischievous but lovable witch Hazel teaches Donald Duck a lesson when he refuses to share his candy with Huey, Duey, and Louie on Halloween night), the most famous cartoons which celebrate the Eve of All Saints are probably It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966) and Garfield's Halloween Adventure (1985).

Witch's Night Out may have been as famous as them (&, hence, not be on this blog) but it sadly got lost in the shuffle when the Disney Channel, after years of airing this gem each Halloween, decided that newer shows should been shown as the 1990s ended.

The title witch (voiced by Gilda Radner) is down because her services aren't in demand as they had been on Halloweens past. Her luck changes, though, when townspeople decide to throw a Halloween party at her seemingly-abandoned mansion. At the same time, she hears the wishes of children Small and Tender to be turned into monsters on Halloween. She pays them and their babysitter Bazooey a visit and transforms them into a werewolf, a ghost, and Frankenstein's monster, respectively.

Their initial joy soon turns into dispair, however, when the townspeople begin hunting them because of their monstrous appearances. On top of that, the witch's magic wand has been stolen by the mean Malicious (Catherine O'Hara) and Rotten (Bob Church), although their efforts to use the wand's power to make money appear end up in failure. The witch is promptly reunited with it and turns the thieves into monsters themselves before granting Bazooey and the kids their wish to return to normal. When the townspeople catch up with them, the witch sadly returns everything and everyone else to normal. Everyone then shows their appreciation for her and what she represents on Halloween by allowing her to transform them into whatever they wish. She then invites them all to her mansion for a party.

The animation is rather crude, but its more than made up for by the catchy disco title tune and, like the Peanuts and Garfield Halloween outings, it has a lot of heart.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Tenant (1976)

"Beautiful. Adorable. Goddess. Divine. Divine! I think I'm pregnant."
-Mr. Trelkovsky, looking in a mirror.

All great filmmakers achieve that label by putting themselves and their experiences into their works. Roman Polanski is anything but the exception. His childhood was spent surviving the Holocaust and his films such as Knife in the Water (1962) and, more famously, The Pianist (2002) reflect survival amist horrible events. Polanski's film version of Macbeth (1971) was his first movie since the Manson killing spree which claimed his wife Sharon Tate and their unborn child in 1969 and is viewed by some as his response to that tragedy.
Just prior to that, Polanski shot to the A-list with the classic Rosemary's Baby (1968). Following Tate's death, Polanski seemed to refrain from making films in Hollywood, with the exception of the great film noir Chinatown (1974). His followup to that triumph, was The Tenant, based on a novel by Roland Topor.
Polanski plays Mr. Trelkovsky, an unassuming man who rents an apartment in Paris. He quickly learns that its previous occupant, one Simone Choule, was hospitalized after throwing herself from the apartment window.
Trelkovsky becomes smitten with Simone's friend Stella (Isabelle Adjani) and they later visit Simone at the hospital. Her body covered in bandages, Simone cries out upon seeing Trelkovsky and then dies.
Later on, Trelkovsky becomes more irritated with his neighbors, as well as his landord M. Zy (Melvyn Douglas) and the Concierge (Shelley Winters) when they all claim he makes too much noise. Trelkovsky's mental state deteriorates further when his apartment is broken into, which everyone reacts to with indifference. Eventually, he alienates all he comes into contact with, including Stella.
He later comes to the conclusion that they wish him to become like Simone. Almost as if to mock their efforts, Trelkovsky buys women's clothing for himself. After he is hit by a car one evening, he is hospitalized but not seriously injured. After he returns home, Trelkovsky dresses up again and throws himself from the window, just like Simone, a number of times before he finds himself in the hospital, covered head to toe in bandages (like Simone).
In the film's Twilight Zone-esque ending, Trelkovsky sees Stella and himself through his bandages before crying out.
More than any other film on this list, I'm surprised this didn't make a great impression when it hit theaters. It's as intense as Rosemary's Baby and has the same psychological tones as Polanski's earlier movie Repulsion (1965). Perhaps people wanted another elaborate Hollywood production after Chinatown (The Tenant was shot entirely in Paris).
Polanski's friend Stanley Kubrick cited this film as inspiration for how he would film The Shining (1980) and, almost as if he were returning the favor, Polanski cited Kubrick's film Barry Lyndon (1975) as inspiration for his later film Tess (1979).
I must also note that The Tenant was the last film Polanski made before his 1977 rape of teenage model Samantha Geimer in California, which would lead to him going to France to avoid American authorities. Despite being briefly placed under arrest in Switzerland in 2009, the director remains persona non grata in the U.S.
It would be foolish to say that Polanski isn't a great filmmaker but it speaks of a double standard (or Hollywood's sexism?) that he can rape a girl and go on to win an Oscar and retain the list of celebrity fans who want to work with him, while, say, Meg Ryan basically ends her reign as 'America's Sweetheart' (and, thus, her bankability) by having consensual sex with Russell Crowe.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The King of Comedy (1983)

"A guy can get anything he wants as long as he pays the price."

-Rupert Pupkin.

I once heard that Stephen King gave an autograph to a fellow some years ago who called himself King's 'number-one fan.' Not long afterward, this 'number-one fan' made history by killing John Lennon.

Whether Mark David Chapman may have met King or not, the circumstances surrounding Lennon's death may have inspired King's great novel Misery as well as the equally memorable 1990 film version of it.

What Lennon's murder showed, though, is that fame has its dangers as well as its perks, & that is precisely what Martin Scorsese illustrates with this gem, which was his and Robert DeNiro's followup to their classic Raging Bull (1980).

Rupert Pupkin (DeNiro) is an aspiring comedian who simply wants to be in the spotlight. He attempts to do this by contacting one of his idols, Johnny Carson-esque talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) after getting a woman named Masha (Sandra Bernhard) out of Langford's car as he attempts to go home following his latest show. Rupert asks that Jerry check out his routine and Jerry, after informing him that everyone in show business starts at the bottom, says he'll be in touch and even encourages Rupert to call his office.

Believing his big break is finally here, Rupert begins to fantasize about being friends with Jerry, along with other celebrities. His ambition is unabated even after Jerry and his staff rebuff his efforts to get on his show. Rupert even brings his friend Rita (Diahnne Abbott) to Jerry's home uninvited, claiming that he and Jerry are close friends.

Rupert shifts tactics, though, after Jerry point blank tells him to leave and wants nothing more to do with him. Rita also leaves Rupert when she realizes that he and Jerry barely know each other. Shortly afterward, he and Masha (whom he recruited in the beginning of the film to get into Jerry's car so he could ingratiate himself to him by throwing her out) abduct Jerry and, after taking him to Masha's apartment, force him to call the studio to get him some airtime on the upcoming show that Tony Randall is guest-hosting. The studio and authorities agree, and Rupert is making his TV debut(even claiming that Jerry is tied up somewhere, which the audience responds to by laughing) while Jerry manages to free himself and escape.

Rupert's appearance brings raves, and he agrees to surrender himself to the police after he plays his performance on the TV in Rita's bar.

Scorsese and DeNiro were already a legendary team by 1983 and this film is another example of that. Rupert is somewhat similar to Travis Bickle, DeNiro's character in Scorsese's classic Taxi Driver (1976), in that he has a somewhat unusual view of the world and resorts to drastic measures to achieve what he wants. The difference is that Travis is more of a lost soul when the audience meets him, while Rupert wants fame because, as he puts it during his appearance, "it's better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime."

Lewis is also good, specifically when he conveys the frustrations which go along with being famous. Perhaps his best moment is when, after his abduction, he calmly and rationally tells Rupert that he didn't check out the tape of his act because the pressures of his bosses and the public left him no time to do anything else. He even apologizes to Rupert for this lack of time and even tells him that he'll check his work out as well as not press charges against him (Rupert listens to Jerry's words, but his desire for fame is still strong).

The ending is somewhat open to interpretation in that Rupert serves only two years of his six-year prison sentence but, when released, he has penned a memoir (entitled King for a Night) and his performing skills are in demand. Has Rupert really achieved this level of success or is this simply another of his fantasies?

More than any other film on this list, The King of Comedy failed to make an impression when it was released because of its title, which, naturally, led people to believe that it was a comedy. The chuckles Rupert generates on Jerry's show notwithstanding, this is a serious look at fame and its pratfalls.

A nice touch has several celebrities, including Randall and Dr. Joyce Brothers, appearing as themselves. Scorsese's cameo as (what else?) a director is also good fun, and, I think, as great as the cameo he gave himself in Taxi Driver.

The late Gene Siskel once compared this film to The Cable Guy (1996), in which Jim Carrey plays the title character, who stalks his unsuspecting customer, played by Matthew Broderick. Unlike Rupert, though, Carrey's cable guy just wants a friend, even though he uses numerous alias from TV characters. Siskel also speculated that this film didn't get much notice because it wasn't a standard Carrey comedy that people, by this time, were expecting.

In any case, The King of Comedy, like Marnie and The Terminal, is a gem from a master filmmaker which just got lost in the shuffle of the other great stuff he was putting out at that time.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

"I'd like to kill somebody!"

"Say that again."

"I'd like to kill somebody."

"Let's me and you go for a ride, Otis."
-Otis and Henry

I'm not the type who condemns a film simply because it has extreme violence, and I'm certainly not the type who blames violence in movies for real-life horror such as Columbine or, more recently, the killings in Norway. Extreme on-screen violence, when used in a certain way, can enhance a film's impact. One great example of this is Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971). I honestly consider this film a work of art, but I can certainly understand why some people dislike it (my father, a man I very much admire, is one such person). Most people remember the moments where Malcolm McDowell's Alex brutalizes innocent people. Where this film's greatness comes into play, though, is that it takes into account the reactions of other people to Alex's crimes; in the case of this film, those people are society in general. When Alex is incarcerated, the issue becomes what to do with him-and whether the route taken is the moral one in that regard. The scenes in which Alex initiates violence serve as the catalyst for that dilemma.
Contrast that with, say, The Devil's Rejects (2005), which simply shows scene after scene of violence by characters its director, Rob Zombie, will go to his grave insisting are supposed to represent 'real' people. On top of that, the film seems to go slower and slower as it reaches its boring slow-motion climax.
In his book Your Movie Sucks, Roger Ebert wrote this in response to criticism of his less-than-stellar review of the movie Chaos (2005):
"I believe evil can win in fiction, as it often does in real life. But I prefer that the artist express an attitude toward that evil. It is not enough to record it; what do you think and feel about it?"
This perfectly sums up why I love Clockwork but dislike Rejects, even though they both contain deplorable content (ironically, Ebert gave a thumbs-down to Kubrick's film, but a thumbs-up to Zombie's).
This brings us to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. John McNaughton, perhaps best known today for making the quirky sex drama Wild Things (1998)-which, after Basic Instinct (1992), is my favorite guilty pleasure movie-made this film is just a month with a budget of just over $100,000. The inspiration for the story came from a 20/20 segment on serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, who confessed to over 600 murders after he was captured. He died in prison in 2001.
The title character (Michael Rooker) is someone who randomly kills people with his partner Otis (Tom Towles). One day, Otis's sister Becky(Tracy Arnold) comes to live with them and, eventually, falls for Henry, while becoming more and more repulsed by Otis. Eventually, Becky and Henry kill Otis after he brutalizes her. Rather than calling the police, they spend the night in a motel before Henry dumps a trunk on the side of the road the next morning, which, presumably, contains Becky's body.
Leonard Maltin commented that this film focuses on other sick minds besides Henry's. Indeed, as murderous as Henry is, Otis is even worse. In addition to raping Becky, he is all-too-eager to go after innocent people, such as the salesman who berates them for wasting time at his shop just as Henry is about to leave. The only lucky one is this film is a boy who sells him marijuana. Otis places his hand on his leg, prompting the boy to punch him in the face and fleeing. While he escapes, though, Henry uses Otis's frustration at the incident to kill a passerby on the highway after they fake car trouble.
Maltin also commented that this film resembles Peeping Tom, and I agree with that to some extent. Henry and Otis steal a video camera from the salesman they kill and later use it to record themselves slaughtering a family in their home. Unlike Mark Lewis, though, Henry doesn't wish to make a film of his deeds to show the world, but is content with carrying out his horrific acts in private.
The film's counterpoint is Becky, who listens to Henry from the moment she meets him. One reason being that they both claim to have been abused during their childhood by their parents. She's seems to be a lonely soul who wants someone who won't shun her, and she believes Henry is that someone-even when she points out that he changes his story about how he killed his mother.
Hence, the response to Henry's violent acts in this film come from someone who, ironically, wants his love and, tragically, is killed for her desire to be near him.
Rooker is great in the title role, coming as an everyman in some scenes and a downright terrifying S.O.B. in others. This was his first film role and it segued into a great career as a character actor, although the role I'll always know him for is as Kevin Costner's government-fearing aide in JFK (1991).
In Scream 2 (1997), one of the characters (played by Rooker's JFK co-star Laurie Metcalf) says that she hates it when people assume that a person's family or upbringing led to them murdering people. Indeed, many slasher films have pinned the cause of their mass slaughters on family trauma but this film, in a way, puts that cliche on its ear by mentioning it only once.
Although the film was made in 1986, it wasn't released until 1990, mainly due to its violent content, which, naturally, led to disagreements with the MPAA. However, it did form a cult following, enough to warrant the inferior Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Part 2 (1996).

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Freeway (1996)

"Do you wanna get shot a whole buncha times?"
-Vanessa Lutz

Reese Witherspoon came onto the movie scene with one of the best debut performances in film history in the coming of age drama Man in the Moon (1991). From there, she gave other great performances in (mainly) independent films such as this one, although her best during that period was her performance as overachieving Tracy Flick in Election (1999), which may very well top the distinguished list of performances which should have been nominated for an Oscar.
Bonafide stardom, however, came with her role as Elle Woods in the comedy Legally Blonde (2001). Her spirited work in that film, though, is the only reason it's worth a look. Remove Reese and Blonde is quite predictable and forgettable, in the same way that if you remove Jack Nicholson from Batman (1989), that movie is as lacking as Joel Schumacher's more-hated Bat-flicks.
Speaking of Jack, Witherspoon's character in Freeway, Vanessa Lutz, is similar to his character in the classic film One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), R.P. McMurphy. Both are delinquents with sharp senses of humor who gain the sympathy of the audience.
Vanessa's life in a poor section of Los Angeles is disrupted when her mother (Amanda Plummer) is arrested for prostitution. But rather than returning to foster care, Vanessa steals her social worker's car and, after obtaining a gun and bidding goodbye to her boyfriend Chopper (Bokeem Woodbine)-who is killed in a shootout shortly afterward-heads to her grandmother's in Stockton. But Vanessa doesn't get far when her car breaks down on the highway. To her rescue, though, comes Bob Wolverton (Kiefer Sutherland), a schoolteacher who offers her a lift. Bob's kind nature prompts Vanessa to basically give him her life story, which includes the times her stepfather and others have molested her. After dinner in a cafe, though, Bob reveals his true colors by trying to kill her, which convinces her that he's the infamous 'I-5' killer that's been in the news. But Vanessa manages to shoot him with her gun (after the pinned-down Bob states that he wouldn't be convicted of any crime with his clean record and, subsequently, offers her money) and leaves his body in his car before running off.
Ironically, Bob isn't dead and stumbles into a hospital. Although the gunshots have left him disfigured, he tells the police and his unsuspecting wife Mimi (Brooke Shields) that Vanessa assaulted him and that he's an innocent victim.
Vanessa is promptly arrested and, after a hearing, sent to prison, despite informing detectives Breer and Wallace (Wolfgang Bodison and Dan Hedaya, respectively) of what Bob really is.
These words prompt them to reexamine their evidence and, as Vanessa breaks out with the help of her fellow inmates and resumes her trip to Grandma's, discover with Mimi that Bob really is the 'I-5' killer.
Unlike Cuckoo's Nest, the most tragic character here isn't the main character or anyone brought under their wing, but rather Mimi. She believes her husband to be a great humanitarian and, when she learns he's anything but, promptly takes her life with a bullet in the mouth.
Meanwhile, Bob himself goes on the run when he sees the police at his home. With a picture of Vanessa's grandma that he somehow acquired, he meets up with Vanessa posing as her grandma. Vanessa, however, isn't fooled and quickly sees that her grandma is Bob's latest victim. She also turns out to be his last victim as Vanessa strangles Bob after a vicious struggle. Breer and Wallace arrive and (presumably) exonerate her.
This film has been called a take on the tale of Little Red Riding Hood and its easy to see why (a trip to Grandma's and Bob's surname are probably the most obvious reflections of this).
Witherspoon's great work is matched by Sutherland, who makes Bob charming and then scary. Perhaps my favorite moment in the film is when Vanessa puts the fear of God into Bob by pulling her gun on him, after he had done the same to her just moments earlier.
I can only hope that Witherspoon returns to making films as clever as this soon because, with the glorious exception of her Oscar-winning work in Walk the Line (2005), her recent films, including How Do You Know (2010) which co-stars Jack, have been less than satisfying.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Paths of Glory (1957)


-Col. Dax

This film, directed by Stanley Kubrick and based on a novel by Humphrey Cobb, takes place during WWI and concerns Col. Dax (Kirk Douglas), who attempts to defend the French troops under his command when they are accused of cowardice after they refuse to continue a suicidal attack.

The trench warfare scenes, a battle environment which WWI itself is known for (heck, Charles Schulz had Snoopy's brother, Spike, in the trenches while Snoopy was in the air searching for the Red Baron), are jolting, all the more so when you consider that this film was made years before America's military involvement in Vietnam began. The influence of these scenes can be seen in later war films such as Platoon (1986), Glory (1989), Saving Private Ryan (1998), as well as Kubrick's more famous war film Full Metal Jacket (1987).

Just as memorable though as the courtroom scenes in which Dax attempts to convince Gen. Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) that courtmartialing 100 troops simply because a planned attack by Broulard and his subordinate Gen. Mireau (George Macready) failed is wrong.

Although the film barely got any attention upon its release, it is revered today, so much so that a 1991 episode of Tales From the Crypt, entitled "Yellow," which guest-starred Douglas, was a takeoff of it.

More importantly, though, it earned Kubrick significant clout. This clout would come in handy when Douglas was working on his next film, Spartacus (1960). Anthony Mann was originally hired as the director until he left the production due to differences with Douglas, who was also the executive producer of the film. This led to Douglas hiring Kubrick as director. Spartacus became a huge hit and, although he disliked the mandates Douglas and the studio put on him during its production, Kubrick used that success to move to England, where he would be based for the rest of his career. This allowed him to make any subsequent films far from the interference of Hollywood. Hence, all of Kubrick's subsequent films, from Lolita (1962) to Eyes Wide Shut (1999), would carry his unique imprint on them.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Kingdom of the Spiders (1977)

"How does it feel to be on the other end of a microscope?"

-Dr. Robert "Rack" Hansen.

For all intents and purposes, the first great 'creature feature' (which didn't involve the creature in question being played by an actor) was King Kong (1933). That film is deservedly part of cinematic lore with FX that are more endearing than Peter Jackson's lame 2005 remake of it. Godzilla (1954) followed and became influential itself thanks to that story's use of atomic power to introduce its monster. Nuclear radiation became a staple of horror throughout the 1950s, such as in the Universal film Monster on the Campus (1958); films which blamed atomic power for nature's creatures running amok on humanity.

Alfred Hitchcock chimed in with his great film The Birds (1963), and Steven Spielberg shot to the top of the A-list with his classic entry in this genre, Jaws (1975). It was the latter which led to a rebirth of nature gone amok films in the 1970s. Like The Birds, many of these films didn't blame nuclear energy for animals declaring war on humanity, the animal antagonists simply decide to do so one day. Grizzly (1976) quickly followed, as did Alligator (1980). One film which offered a scientific explanation was Piranha (1978), in which the vicious fish are explained as being genetically engineered. Stephen King's contribution came with the 1981 publication of his great novel Cujo, which, in turn, became an equally great movie in 1983.

Some of these films blame humanity's actions for nature to turn on them. One such example is Kingdom of the Spiders, which, as the title suggests is about spiders(tarantuals, specifically, but I guess producers thought Kingdom of the Tarantulas wouldn't have been as cool a title) attacking human beings. The reason for this attack, though, is explained as being the use of pesticides which have resulted in the arachnids' natural sources of food dying out, hence, our eight-legged friends have to resort to humanity and livestock for food.

Robert "Rack" Hansen (William Shatner) is a veterinarian in a small Arizona town who begins to suspect trouble after a calf belonging to his friend Walter Colby (Woody Strode) mysteriously dies. Not long after taking his findings to a lab, an arachnologist named Diane Ashley (Tiffany Bolling) contacts Rack and informs him that the calf dies from spider venom. Rack is skeptical at first but welcomes her input, especially after Colby's dog and bull die from similar circumstances. Colby also discovers a massive spider hill in the back of his barn and, with Rack and Ashley's help, burns it down.

However, some of the tarantulas manage to escape and, over the next few days, begin to attack and kill human beings, including Colby. Rack and Ashley attempt to get the mayor (Roy Engel) to stop this manifestation by using rats and birds (the natural enemies of tarantulas) rather than the usual pesticides. However, like the mayor in Jaws, this mayor says that having the town covered in pests won't do because of an impending town festival which is meant to keep the town going throughout the year. Unlike Jaws, though, the mayor here gets what's coming to him during the film's climax.

Eventually, like The Birds, the film ends up with our two leads and a few others barricading themselves inside a building to protect themselves from the onslaught. Another similarity with the Hitchcock film is the ambiguous ending.

One of the biggest reasons this picture has a special place in some hearts is because of Shatner, who does his best to avoid being typecast as Kirk, despite the fact that Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) was just two years away. The music by Dorsey Burnett is another plus, weaving (no pun intended) tension throughout the movie, so much so that we can ignore the fact that real-life tarantulas don't do much web-weaving.

Another interesting note is that several of the tarantulas used actually died during production of this film. This makes it doubtful that a potential remake of the film (and I won't be surprised if we see one down the line) could be made with the real things today, as the inferior Arachnophobia (1990) proved.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Shoot the Moon (1982)

"Do I look like a hooker?"
"No, you look beautiful. You don't look anything like a hooker."
"See, I don't look anything like a hooker. What's a hooker?"
-Molly and Faith Dunlap.

Alan Parker was on a roll going into the 1980s with the back-to-back successes of Midnight Express (1978) and Fame (1980). Shoot the Moon was his followup project, but it didn't get as much attention, although Albert Finney and Diane Keaton both won deserved Golden Globe nominations for their performances.
George Dunlap (Finney) is a writer who, as the film opens, has just won a prestigeous writing award for his recent novel. However, the bliss he shares with his wife Faith (Keaton) and their daughters Sherry (Dana Hill), Jill (Viveka Davis), Marianne (Tracey Gold), and Molly (Tina Yothers) is simply a front for the breakup of his marriage, which occurs barely a day after George's win with him leaving their home.
Sherry is the first of the children to realize that her father has a mistress, single mother Sandy (Karen Allen). Once he leaves Faith, Sherry is the only one of the four girls who wants nothing more to do with her father. When he picks them up to take them to school, she takes the bus instead without even greeting him. She is also the only one who is not seen with Sandy, even though her sisters enjoy her company. Sherry also helps out Faith as much as she can, even going so far as to cook breakfast for all of them.
As the weeks pass, Faith eventually meets Frank (Peter Weller), a carpenter who arrives to remind her of the work order for building a tennis court which she made over a year earlier. The separation, however, has left Faith without sufficient money to pay for such a project, which prompts Frank to do it for her out of sympathy. This sympathy eventually leads to a romance between the two.
It is here where the dramatic fireworks of the film begin. George becomes jealous once he sees that Faith is attached to someone else. He also becomes more and more frustrated with Sherry's attitude toward him. This reaches the point where he arrives at his former home and demands she accept a birthday present (a typewriter). When Sherry still refuses, he forces himself into her room and spanks her.
Ironically, Sherry's view of George begins to change when, following the funeral of Faith's father (George Murdock), she catches her parents making love in a hotel room. Shortly afterward, she lashes out at Faith and Frank (even though she liked him fine before) and runs to Sandy's home to talk with her father. They basically reconcile on the dock near Sandy's beach home, where Sherry accepts her birthday gift.
However, this goodwill is shattered when George returns Sherry to her mother and proceeds to wreck the newly built tennis court with his car, scaring the hell out of the guests there in the process (I doubt it's a coincidence that the classic Rolling Stones song "Play With Fire" is playing in the background).
Frank then stops George by beating him up (understandable, but when looked at in another way-Robocop beating up Daddy Warbucks-this fight could not be more unfair). The final scene of the film is of George being comforted from his beating by all four of his girls and reaching a hand toward Faith, who's hovering over him.
What makes this film good is the jealous obsession George and Faith have on each other even though they are broken up, and even after they become involved with other people. The confrontations between the two are just as intense as Keaton's with Al Pacino in The Godfather Part II(1974). George clearly loves Sandy but can't easily let go of everything he's established with Faith. Faith, likewise, was the one who was hurt in the beginning, so she obviously misses George. Prior to their hotel love-making, they have an argument at a restaurant, which they both clearly enjoy.
Perhaps the scene stealer is Hill, whose great work as Sherry perfectly captures the anger and confusion of a child old enough to understand the concept of divorce and the impact divorce has on a family. Tragically, Hill died in 1996 at age 32 from a stroke brought on by complications from diabetes. Despite impressive voice over credits, her other noteworthy film role (sadly or not) was as Chevy Chase's daughter in National Lampoon's European Vacation (1985).
My guess-and this is only a guess-as to why this didn't make the same impression as Parker's two previous films is that people were more preoccupied with another great film from 1982 which focused (partially) on divorce-E.T.-The Extra-Terrestrial. That film was unique in that it was a coming of age story which just happened to have a science fiction angle to it. When you also take into account that E.T. was just one of many great science fiction films to be released in 1982(others, for the record, include Blade Runner, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Dark Crystal, The Secret of NIMH, Poltergeist, Tron, and The Thing), maybe it was inevitable that a low-budget, mundane gem as this just got lost in the shuffle.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1980)

"You've come to the wrong place. Sleepy Hollow is about as exciting as fried mush. If it wasn't for the ghosts, there'd be nothing to say between hello and goodbye."
-Fritz Vanderhoof.

Washington Irving's classic short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, published in 1820, may have been the first American ghost story. The best-known film versions of the story are undoubtedly the Disney cartoon from 1949 and Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow (1999).

Ironically, it's the Disney cartoon that's the most faithful to Irving's story. Like many others, this is the version which introduced me to the story, and Disney's depiction of the Headless Horseman rightfully became famous.

While the cartoon is great Halloween viewing, it is Burton's film that provides even more shocks, which is one reason is my favorite version of the story. Although Burton adds loving nods to the Disney version in the film, the story has quite a few departures from the Irving story. For instance, Ichabod Crane, played by Johnny Depp, is a policeman who doesn't believe in ghosts, rather than the superstitious school teacher of Irving and Disney. The Burton film also leaves no doubt that the Horseman is a supernatural force, whereas the Irving story suggests the possibility that the havoc is brought about by more human means.

In between those two versions came this TV-movie which appropriately aired on Halloween 1980 and, in a way, combines elements of both the Disney and Burton versions. Like Depp's Crane, Jeff Goldblum's Ichabod is a skeptic when it comes to matters of the supernatural. This film, however, has the same basic setup as Irving's story: Crane arrives at the town of Sleepy Hollow to begin his new teaching job. His attraction to beautiful Katrina Van Tassel (Meg Foster) angers muscular but pompous Brom Bones (Dick Butkus), which prompts him to plot driving Crane from Sleepy Hollow with the legend of the Headless Horseman.

Like Burton's film, though, there are a few liberties taken here. Irving's story and Disney's cartoon kept the Horseman's origins vague, whereas Burton's film drew up an elaborate tale of witchcraft and revenge to explain the Horseman. This film doesn't go into the Horseman's backstory either, but, like Burton's film, new characters are added, none of which, happily, are irksome.

Crane is attracted to Katina, but he also catches the eye of widowed Thelma Vanderhoof (Laura Campbell), whose son is one of Crane's students. Her father Fritz (John Sylvester White) meets up with Crane upon his arrival in Sleepy Hollow and informs him of the ghosts which are part of the town's folklore. Later on, he chastises Crane for destroying the garlic in his school (which are also his living quarters) which was meant to protect him from spirits. The school (which is appropriately small given the time period) is also inhabited by an owl which Vanderhoof says is the spirit of an Indian, one Chief Running Buffalo.

Crane later informs them of his sightings of a strange man (Michael Ruud), whom they inform him is Wintrop Palmer, Crane's predecessor whom Bones supposedly killed for his attraction to Katrina.

The latter half of the film deals with Crane beginning to slightly doubt his sanity, thanks mainly to tricks by Bones. He also declares his love for Katrina and Bones's plans to rid the town of him by disguising himself as the Horseman. Like Crane, Bones doesn't believe in the Horseman, which makes his reaction when he actually sees the Horseman at the film's climax rather amusing.

The Horseman himself is visually well-done, especially considering that CGI didn't exist in 1980. The story is really turned on its head when the Horseman pursues Bones and Crane, in turn, pursues the Horseman, thinking it's really Palmer (who earlier told Crane that he faked his death to plot revenge on Bones and the Horseman). Bones escapes and Crane ends his pursuit when he sees Palmer being taken into custody after Katrina and her father (James Griffith) find him.

Again like Depp's Crane, Goldblum's ends up with Katrina and, amusingly, Bones ends up with Thelma after she and her father find him in his Horseman disguise and blackmail him into a union so his reputation isn't ruined.

The great final shot of the film is the Horseman riding through the countryside. Perhaps more than the other versions, this one views the Horseman as the progenitor (of sorts) to future fiction boogeymen like Michael Myers: a supernatural force that just won't die!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Noises Off (1992)*

"Like the band playing on as the Titanic sank."

-director Lloyd Fellowes.

Like Sidney Lumet's adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express (1974), this film has a cast & director that's a dream roll call. The director is Peter Bogdanovich, who, like William Friedkin, achieved great fame from the films he made in the 1970s but whose clout minimized in the decades since.

Happily, Bogdanovich has kept working, from directing underrated flicks such as The Cat's Meow (2001) to writing and directing documentaries on fellow filmmakers such as John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock.

This film, based on the 1982 play of the same name by Michael Frayn, is a play within a play.

Lloyd Fellowes (Michael Caine) is prepping his second-rate theater troupe for the opening night of the sexual farce Nothing On. His cast-fading star Dotty Otley (Carol Burnett), her pompous lover Garry Lejeune (John Ritter), insecure Frederick Dallas (Christopher Reeve), alcoholic Selsdon Mowbray (Denholm Elliott), optimistic Belinda Blair (Marilu Henner), and ditzy Brooke Ashton (Nicollete Sheridan), whom Fellowes has had an affair with-keeps forgetting their lines and cues, as well as mishandling the props.

Behind the curtain, Fellowes has to deal with the equally incompetent production assistant/understudy Tim Allgood (Mark Linn-Baker). With opening night approaching, Fellowes certainly has his work cut out for him, which isn't lessened when his stage manager Poppy Taylor (Julie Hagerty) informs him that she's pregnant with his child.

By the time opening night arrives, the crew more or less perform adequately, but their relationships with each other have deteriorated to the point where they practically try to kill each other when not onstage (in some cases, even when they are onstage). This makes their performance in Cleveland particularly unforgettable. As their scheduled performance in New York City approaches, Fellowes ends up simply begging for it all to be over.

Having never seen the original play, I can't say whether I agree with the critics who have said that this film version isn't up to par. What can't be denied, though, are the laughs that are generated by this dream cast.

*Thanks to Sarah for recommending I review this film.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Marnie (1964)

"You don't love me. I'm just something you've caught! You think I'm some sort of animal you've trapped!"
"That's right - you are. And I've caught something really wild this time, haven't I? I've tracked you and caught you and by God I'm going to keep you."
-Marnie Edgar and Mark Rutland.

Alfred Hitchcock's career was at an all-time high in the late 1950s/early 60s. Television was becoming more and more prominent during that time, which is what led to the creation of the classic series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, a show that is classic not just for its storylines, but for Hitchcock's wonderful appearances which bookended each installment (some have said that Steven Spielberg's series Amazing Stories may have had a longer run if Spielberg had hosted each episode).

Hitchcock even used the production crew from the show to make his most famous movie Psycho (1960), rightfully believing that the low-budget look applied to that film would make it more effective.

Psycho was just one of a string of films Hitchcock made during this period which became very famous and influential: Vertigo (1958), North By Northwest (1959), and The Birds (1963). Although all three had a bigger-budget than Psycho, they all became just as legendary.

At virtually the same time, the James Bond film series began with Dr. No (1962). The success of that film and its followup From Russia With Love (1963) made Sean Connery a star. As I noted in my review of The Hill, Sir Sean was determined to prove to the world that there was more to his acting than Bond. He told Bond producer Albert Broccoli that he would like to work with Hitchcock. Strings were pulled and Connery was signed on as the lead in Marnie.

With Hitchcock behind the camera and Connery sharing the screen with 'Tippi' Hedren, who had just starred in The Birds, expectations were high for the film.

However, the finished product was viewed by 1964 audiences as disappointing, especially in comparison to Hitchcock's previous films. Plus the fact that, just a few months after its release, Marnie was overshadowed by the release of Goldfinger, the third Bond film & the one which kicked Bondmania into high gear.

Happily, some critics have reevaluated the film in subsequent years, to the point were some, such as Donald Spoto (author of the Hitchcock biography The Dark Side of Genius), have declared it Hitchcock's last great film, although I personally think that honor goes to Frenzy (1972).

Unlike Hitchcock's other films, Marnie isn't really a 'shocker,' but rather a psychological character study, which none of Hitchcock's other films could be classified as. I'd say that this departure from the norm is what initially turned audiences away.

The title character (Hedren) is a quiet, disturbed woman who has a penchant for landing a job and, after some time, vanishing taking her employer's money with her. As the film opens, her latest potential victim is widowed publishing company executive Mark Rutland (Connery). He takes a liking to her and even shares a subtle but memorable kiss with her one evening. True to form, however, Marnie steals money from his safe before disappearing. This moment, curiously, is the only point in the film that suspense is generated, as Marnie must time her actions precisely before a passing custodian sees her.

However, Mark manages to track her down. He was helped by the fact that his friend Sidney Strutt (Martin Gabel) had previously fallen victim to Marnie's tactics & that Strutt introduced her to Mark prior to that (Marnie, naturally, used a different name and a slightly different look at that time).

Here lies the best moment of the film: Mark has tracked Marnie down and has every right to hand her over to the police (I certainly would, no matter how attractive she may be). Instead, he blackmails Marnie into marrying him in hopes of understanding what drives her to do such things.

Once they are married, the rest of the film focuses on the Mark and Marnie facing off. She has a deep distrust of men and a fear of thunderstorms and the color red. Mark initially respects her wishes for privacy on their honeymoon cruise, but (presumably) rapes her shortly afterward when her frigidity proves maddening.

At the same time, Mark does show some kindess to Marnie, such as when he arranges for her to ride her horse, Telepathy (which Marnie is sadly forced to later kill when he breaks his leg). They also try their best to present themselves as an ideal couple, although Mark's sister-in-law Lil Mainwaring (Diane Baker) has her suspicions, fueled by her own love for Mark.

In the end, Mark discovers that Marnie sends the money she steals to her indifferent mother (Louise Latham). He also learns that, as a child, Marnie killed a sailor who was attacking her mother during a thunderstorm. After bringing all that agony out in the open, Marnie wishes to remain with Mark.

Although Hitchcock made four more films after this one, Marnie, in some ways, marked the end of an era. First and foremost, it was the last Hitchcock film with a musical score by Bernard Herrmann. The music Herrmann composed for Vertigo, North By Northwest, and Psycho was magnificent, and the same can be said for the score for Marnie, which may be the most romantic musical score for any film I've ever heard. However, studio pressure eventually led Hitchcock to instruct Herrmann to put a more pop and jazz beat to his music. When Herrmann refused, Hitchcock unilaterally cut off all ties with him during post-production of Hitchcock's next film Torn Curtain (1966). The music for that film was composed by John Addison.

Marnie was also the last Hitchcock film which had the traditional 'Hitchcock blonde' as a leading lady.

I, too, initially thought the film was too slow. But as a character study, it comes off better. Today, I'd be surprised if this film wasn't viewed by students of psychology. It is also, for me, the first great film Sir Sean did once he started drinking vodka martinis shaken not stirred.
No comments:

Monday, April 4, 2011

Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971)

"He hasn't been himself of late." -Edwina Hyde, referring to her 'brother,' Dr. Henry Jekyll.

There are quite a few films with scenarios which just make you ask "WTF?!?" Some, like North(1994), deservedly disappear from cinemas as fast as they arrive. Others, like Twins(1988), turn out to be surprisingly watchable. What made the latter work was mainly the engaging performances of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito playing the most unlikely of twin brothers. Having Ivan Reitman, who had already directed gems such as Ghostbusters (1984), behind the camera was another plus.

Another good film with an outrageous premise is this take on Robert Louis Stevenson's classic story The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Even those who have never read the book know the basics: a kind doctor, one Henry Jekyll, ingests a self-made potion he theorizes will segregate the good and evil known to reside in each man. The potion, however, turns him into Edward Hyde, an individual uninhibited by ethics or conscience. The transformations between the two become sporadic until Jekyll, horrified to learn of the acts he committed as Hyde, begins to desperately find ways to kill Hyde forever. The book has been adapted for the screen numerous times over the decades.

One of the best was the 1920 adaptation with John Barrymore playing both roles (and famously distorting his handsome features to play Hyde). Eleven years later, Fredich March would win an Oscar for playing the dual roles in another film version. One common trap many of the Jekyll films fall into is the decision to have Mr. Hyde appear animalistic or wolf man-esque. Anyone who has read Stevenson's story will tell you that there is no such description of Hyde present. Hyde, while certainly ruthless, reflects the nature of humanity as much as Jekyll does.

This is why the story and its two main characters have become such a famous example of humanity's inner struggle of good and evil. Not surprisingly, the duality of the title characters were also influential in the creation of characters such as the Wolf Man, the Incredible Hulk and the Batman villain Two-Face.

The film version which was probably closest to Stevenson's story was I, Monster (1971), in which Christopher Lee plays the good doctor and his vicious counterpart. The 'Hyde' makeup on Lee is not over the top as it is in other versions and he expertly plays the differences and similarities of both characters. One interesting deviation, though, was that Lee played Dr. Marlowe and Mr. Blake, while all the other characters had the same names as in the story.

Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde is Hammer Films's take on the classic story with a unique twist: the doctor turns into a beautiful but vicious woman. Reportedly, screenwriter Brian Clemens came up with the idea over lunch with director Roy Ward Baker. Baker initially thought Clemens was joking until Clemens wrote the script that very night. The good doctor (Ralph Bates) attempts to create the elixir of life with female hormones, which he obtains, amusingly enough, from cadavers given to him by two fellows named Burke and Hare (real-life serial killers who terrorized Scotland in the 1820s). When he takes the potion, he unexpectedly becomes the beautiful Edwina Hyde (Martine Beswick), who passes herself off as Jekyll's widowed sister. Naturally, it isn't long before Hyde begins to take over and, following the lynching of Burke and Hare, commits murders whom the public attributes to, yes, Jack the Ripper. One big plus of this film is the uncanny resemblance Bates & Beswick have to each other. Both are very good at playing roles which must have been a challenge. Needless to say, the film ends on the same note the story does.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Brothers (2001)

"Black and white women have one thing in common: we don't like bullshit men." -Jesse Caldwell

For me, the one thing that can instantly kill a romantic comedy is when the screenwriters have the couple in question go through the most cliched of circumstances to wait until the end of the film to officially begin life as a couple. I'll never know why some comedies which do this, such as The Wedding Singer (1998) and Wedding Crashers (2005), enjoy success since these are just two of the many films of that genre which basically do nothing but have the two leads waste 90+ minutes of their time and the audience's time ignoring the obvious.
Thankfully, The Brothers proves an exception to that rule. Four childhood friends-Jackson Smith (Morris Chestnut), Brian Palmer (Bill Bellamy), Derrick West (D.L. Hughley), and Terry White (Shemar Moore)-go through the trials and tribulations of romantic relationships. The quartet begin to give the subject considerable thought when Terry announces that he's engaged. Jackson falls in love with beautiful photographer Denise Johnson (Gabrielle Union), only to learn that she was once involved with his father. Brian begins dating spunky Jesse Caldwell (Julie Benz), but they hit a rough patch when she has a harsh exchange with a respected judge (Angelle Brooks) over their interracial relationship. Derrick is already married, but finds himself wanting more satisfaction from his wife Sheila (Tamala Jones). Off all these subplots, the most engaging is Jackson and Denise's. I'd sure react uncomfortably if a member of my family was once involved with my significant other. Chestnut and Union have great chemistry, so it's no surprise that this film wouldn't be the last time they would share the screen. The reason The Brothers is better than the aforementioned comedies is that the characters come across as individuals rather than cliches. The reactions (and thus the performances) are all believable and, while we may not agree with everything some of the characters (in particular, Brian and his lack of closure with Jesse) do, we nevertheless find the dynamics of these unpredictable and, at times, unsettling situations interesting.
Roger Ebert probably said it best in his review of the dreadful comedy Tomcats (2001) which also deals with a group of guy friends dealing with the concept of romance leading to marriage: The Brothers get their magic because they themselves respect women and are instantly likeable.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Easy Virtue (2008)

"Smile, Marion."
"I don't feel like smiling."
"You're English, dear. Fake it."
-Veronica and Marion Whittaker

There have been several films which have dealt with a parent accepting a new daughter/son-in-law into his/her life. There are good ones with this theme, such as the underrated Only the Lonely (1991), and bad ones, like the laugh-free comedy The Family Stone (2005).

Happily, Easy Virtue falls into the former category. John Whittaker (Ben Barnes) returns home to his family mansion after spending time in Monaco. He brings with him an unusual surprise: his new bride Larita (Jessica Biel), who is a successful racecar driver. Almost immediately, she incurs the ire of her new mother-in-law, Veronica (Kristin Scott Thomas), who tries to get the other members of her household to view Larita with the same distaste that she does. Veronica succeeds where her youngest daughter Hilda (Kimberley Nixon) is concerned, especially when Larita accidentally kills Hilda's chihuahua and when Philip Hurst (Christian Brassington), the brother of John's former love Sarah (Charlotte Riley), shows more interest in her than in Hilda. John doesn't help matters when he seems uninterested in finding a home for himself and Larita and when his sense of responsibility leads to him investing more into his family, which has seven generations of farmers. Further fuel to the anti-Larita fire is added when Hilda realizes that she had a hand in the death of her first husband.

Larita does her best to simply apologize for her mistakes and basically put a smile on and offer an olivebranch to the family, which includes a lavish Thanksgiving feast she prepares. The only ally she gains is John's unhappy father Jim (Colin Firth).

The ending of the film is both unpredictable and satisfying. Rather than making amends, Larita simply tells off Veronica for being such a domineering control freak and her children, including John, for becoming mindless slaves to her every whim. Larita even tells Sarah that she can (basically) have John back. This makes the ending scene with Larita allowing Jim to join her as she drives off all the better. Unlike other films, like the aforementioned Family Stone, where the audience knows who the protagonist should be with long before he/she does, here the match up at the climax happens naturally. Jim doesn't make eyes at his daughter-in-law, but he does show her some basic respect. It's also clear, as the film goes on, that he doesn't exactly view life with Veronica as ideal as he once may have. He slowly but surely realizes that Larita is a breath of fresh air not only by the way she tells Veronica off but also by the way she relates to people in general. This infatuation comes out when he dances with Larita at the party during the film's climax when no one else, not even John, will. Firth has always been a fine actor, and his performance here is no exception to that. He walks away with the picture.

Some may think that The Illusionist (2006) is the only movie Biel's been in that's any good, but this film will come as a pleasant surprise.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Five Corners (1987)

"But it's me who should be protecting you."

"Like last time?"

-Jamie and Linda

Perhaps this strategy was first utilized by the great movie American Graffiti (1973), but it seems that each time a film is made about the 1960s, the producers seem intent on flooding the soundtrack with hit songs of that time. Don't get me wrong, I love many of the songs which came out during this period, but when a movie just hits you over the head with the fact that it's taking place in the 60s rather than with just telling a story, it becomes annoying after a while.

Happily, Five Corners doesn't fall into that trap. There are one or two songs heard in the film (notably the great Beatles song "In My Life," which bookends the film and was also its trailer), but, musicwise, the original score by James Newton Howard gives the film an appropriately moody tone.

It is 1964 in the Bronx. In between Kennedy's assassination and before the Gulf of Tonkin (which truly kicked off the U.S.'s military involvement in Vietnam), we see people just living their lives when Heinz (John Turturro) arrives, having just gotten out of prison. Jamie (Todd Graff) gets wind of this and tells Linda (Jodie Foster), the girl he loves and whom Heinz attempted to rape years earlier. Nonplussed, she goes to Harry (Tim Robbins), who helped put Heinz in prison. Harry has since become a pacifist and attempts to simply talk to Heinz when they meet up.

At the same time, a schoolteacher (played by a guy who looks like Matt Frewer, although the imdb's entry on this film doesn't have his name) is murdered by an arrow to the back on his way to school one morning. When some of his students hear the news, they simply decide to take advantage of the day off school they now have.

Heinz eventually catches up with Linda and they meet at midnight in the nearby park after he makes indirect threats about Jamie. Heinz tries to prove his love for her by giving her two penguins he stole from the Bronx zoo. Linda politely turns down the gift, correctly pointing out that penguins require more special care than cats or dogs. Heinz angrily replies by killing one of the penguins.

Although Linda takes the other and temporarily escapes to Jamie, Heinz finds her again and knocks her out. Taking her to the roof of a building, Heinz is caught by Jamie and Harry before Heinz gets the same arrow in the back the teacher got.

The events here may be melodramatic to some, but the interesting characters make this worthwhile. The fact that not everything (i.e. the identity of the bow-and-arrow killer) is wrapped up nicely but the main characters end up in a (dramatically) satisfying place make this worth watching.
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